Coming back from the dead opened up all sorts of doors around Konoha. Ryouma still wasn’t sure he’d recommend the experience, on the whole, but it did get him exclusive access to Arakaki Hisoka’s office for an all-morning debriefing, where he was a little disappointed to learn that Arakaki drank the same cheap coffee they served in the ANBU HQ cafeteria. At least the Director of ANBU Operations got his lunch privately delivered on trays to his office, even if the miso soup was starting to cool. Eating with Arakaki was fairly unnerving, too. The Director’s idea of small talk seemed to consist of interrogating Ryouma about his family history, and there were only so many ways Ryouma could say I don’t know.
“Well,” Arakaki said at last, shoving his tray away, “I’m sure I’ll wake up at four a.m. two weeks from now remembering exactly who you remind me of. My wife won’t thank you for it. Are you quite finished?”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, a little sadly. He’d missed Morimoto’s cooking, but he’d barely been able to manage half of the oversized lunch they’d prepared for him. “I think my stomach must’ve shrunk, in Suna. I didn’t eat much last night either.”
“Hmm.” Arakaki studied him for a moment, frowning. “I’ll have my secretary set up an appointment with a nutritionist later this week as well. And a physical therapist. We’ll take a look at the room assignments as well. Headquarters is unusually fully right now, but I’m sure--”
“Arakaki-san,” Ryouma said, and stopped. Swallowed, and started over again. “Sir. Thank you, but you don’t need to bother. I want to resign.”
His words fell like lead weights into thick mud, sinking slowly, inevitably. Arakaki’s eyes narrowed. “That wasn’t the impression Hokage-sama and I received yesterday.”
Ryouma just barely managed not to point out that yesterday Arakaki was the one who had twice avoided giving any answers on when Ryouma could expect to be back to active duty. “I did some thinking, last night and this morning. Sir. I think I’d serve the village better on regular jounin status again.”
“Your face is in the Bingo Book now,” Arakaki said softly. “Once the other villages find out you’re still alive, going on missions unmasked is unlikely to make any difference.”
Getting a page in the Bingo Book had once been Ryouma’s life’s ambition. Strange how quickly things could change. He grimaced. “I know that, sir. Next time they’ll just kill me. But--”
“Think about it, Tousaki,” Arakaki said, in a voice like a knife. “You’re on medical leave for the next month at least. I won’t accept any resignation before then. Think about it--and make sure you’re the one making the decision. Not Hatake.”
Ryouma bit his tongue. “Kakashi doesn’t make my decisions for me. Sir.”
“Tell me that next month,” Arakaki said. He stood, settling the high collar of his plain black suit with a practiced twitch. “We have an appointment downstairs in ten minutes. Are you ready?”
The correct answer was No; who was ever ready for the experts down in the sub-basement to rummage through his brain? But ready or not, it wouldn’t make a difference. Ryouma sighed, shoved his chair back, and climbed to his feet. “Yes, sir.”
The blood-smell was stronger inside the Hokage’s office. Beneath Kakashi’s feet, the carpet had a freshly scrubbed look to it; a faint aroma of stringent lemon hung in the air. Despite that, it was the Hokage’s own scent that pulled his attention more, entrenched into the office so deeply that it was like a watermark pressed into every surface. Something like a banked forest fire, the fine fletchings of an antique quill, and old wolf. Danger and delicacy.
Kakashi didn’t bare his throat.
“I trust that you Agent Tousaki found you safely last night,” the Hokage said finally, careful and quiet, as if Arakaki hadn’t had a masked ANBU watching Kakashi’s apartment all night.
“I’m sure the report is on your desk,” Kakashi said.
“I’m afraid a guard is an unfortunate necessity for the moment,” the Hokage said. “Until Agent Tousaki has completed--”
“His name is Ryouma,” Kakashi snapped.
The Sandaime paused. “Perhaps you should just say what you have come to say, Kakashi.”
For once, the words were easy to find.
“He was alive. All this time, he’s been alive. You knew exactly where he was and what was being done to him, and you said nothing.” He wrenched out of his enforced stillness, striding to the Hokage’s desk and slamming his palms down on the wooden top. Piles of paperwork shivered. A framed picture fell over. “Tsume quit. Why wasn’t there a mission? We’ve broken into other villages before. He was held hostage and sold.”
The Hokage righted the picture. Kakashi resisted the urge to throw it across the room.
“I cannot start a war over one life,” the Hokage said.
“What about ten? A hundred? How many of us do they have to torture and kill before you’ll defend your village?” The words came out snarling. “Lightning took Tsume and Ryouma in February. They ripped Ryouma’s fingernails out, tore the skin off his chest. Tsume’s dog lost an eye. Tsume’s chakra is still damaged.”
“Are still the responsibility of the country that spawned them,” Kakashi broke in, furious. “We capture ours, and pay dividends on the people they kill. Shiranui Genma and Namiashi Raidou were taken by missing Mist-nin in March; they both nearly died. The genin team they were trying to save did die. Kinjo Tsuyako died the same week.” Broken and breathless under Kakashi’s own hands, because torture had fractured her loyalty. “Sakamoto Ginta barely survived, and I know you know that because you gave him a medal. Uchiha Shuji lost both legs in April. Akimichi Hitai vanished in June. Iman Suko and Kawa Umin burned to death.”
There were others — there were always others — but he didn’t know their names.
“We don’t capture all of our Missing-nin,” the Hokage said softly.
“Like Orochimaru?” Kakashi said, unrelenting.
Something flicked like a blade through the Hokage’s scent. Kakashi had been fifteen when Orochimaru had defected; he remembered sleepless nights spent with Rin in this same office, both of them too afraid to leave Minato alone for a moment in case Orochimaru came back to murder the man who’d taken the job he’d thought was his.
Orochimaru had killed more than sixty people with his experiments. The Sandaime had let him go.
Kakashi’s father had died for trying to save lives.
“There are many things I regret about my life,” the Hokage said, meeting Kakashi’s gaze. “But my past mistakes are not the issue at hand. You are angry because you believe I have betrayed your trust, and the trust of all my agents. Perhaps you think I am not fit to be the Hokage.”
Kakashi looked away.
The Hokage rose from his chair and walked around the desk. The broad sunlight streaming through the windows silvered his grey hair and warmed his skin, making him seem a little younger than his sixty-one years; he was almost a handspan shorter than Kakashi, and looked about as tired as Kakashi had felt for years.
“Ryouma’s ruse was a good one. Every piece of intel I had indicated he was irrevocably damaged. I could not tell my agents that one of their own was imprisoned and insane until I knew whether it was even possible to bring him home. What would you have done four months ago if I had come to you and said Ryouma was in Suna, and they were considering executing him?”
Ryouma hadn’t said that. Kakashi felt the blood drain out of his face.
“I would have gone,” he said.
“Perhaps you would have succeeded,” the Hokage said, in a way that made Kakashi suspect he was trying to be kind. “But there would have been loss of life, and at the very least a political disaster that I simply do not have the resources to deal with. I cannot afford to lose Suna’s support, and Konoha cannot afford to lose you, Kakashi. You are the last of your clan.”
“So is Ryouma,” Kakashi said sharply.
“If the two of you figure out how to have children, I deeply hope that you pass along all of your jutsu,” the Hokage said, with a slight lift to one side of his mouth.
Kakashi stared at him.
“Just a thought to keep in mind,” the Hokage said.
Kakashi wrenched his mind back to a sane place. “I gave you my oath six years ago,” he said. “I swore to have no face but the mask you gave me, no heart but the heart of Konohagakure, and no will but yours. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked me to.”
And you kicked me out.
Very carefully, the Hokage’s hand came down on his shoulder. “I know,” he said quietly, eyes so dark they seemed hollow. “And I still have so much to ask from you.”
Kakashi drew a breath that burned. “What else do you want?”
“For you to go home,” the Hokage said gently. “Ryouma will be done with Intel soon, and I have no doubt he will prove himself loyal. Take him out; show him the village you have both spent your lives fighting for. Remind him what it means to be alive and home.” His hand tightened a little. “And perhaps remember, yourself.”
The sub-basements were markedly less sinister than Ryouma had expected. He had vague, drug-shattered memories of a cell in Kumogakure no Sato; much more unpleasant memories of a dark, airless hole in Suna, before they finally bought his ruse and opened negotiations with Konoha. Somehow he’d expected ANBU’s T&I facilities to be run along the same lines. Flickering lights, dripping pipes, cold concrete, a broken man laughing eerily, endlessly, in the cell next door…
Perhaps that was all down one level more. On this level there was drab beige carpet, thirty-year-old wallpaper, and a lingering scent of tobacco. Arakaki escorted him to an utterly ordinary-looking office, where a square-jawed woman in a blocky grey uniform was chain-smoking cheap cigarettes as she flipped through files.
“Where’s Shida?” Arakaki asked, without preliminaries.
“Lunch.” She was the first agent Ryouma had seen who didn’t stand to salute the Director of ANBU Operations, although she did tap her cigarette on the edge of the ash-tray. “He said you didn’t need him for this anyway.”
“I wanted to speak to him, but it can wait. Is Yamanaka ready?”
She pointed with her cigarette at a door in the back wall, between two neglected potted plants. “He’s just getting set up.”
Arakaki headed for the door, and the hallway beyond it. Ryouma trailed a little uneasily behind. This was the part he’d dreaded. Talking he could do; even the worst memories could be nailed down, re-framed, corralled by words into a context that made them bearable. But Konoha’s interrogation specialists didn’t always need to wait for their subject to talk. And where Ryouma couldn’t remember well enough to frame his experiences into words--where the genjutsu that had caught him was involved, and that first long nightmarish month in Kumogakure--they could open up his mind themselves, and sift through his memories to find anything that interested them.
It wasn’t rape if you consented, he told himself fiercely. And he wanted this, wanted to prove himself loyal, wanted to make something worthwhile out of his suffering. If his clouded memories could provide details that would give Konoha an edge over its old enemies and uneasy allies, his village was welcome to them.
He’d gone too far to turn back now, anyway.
The next room looked uncannily like a doctor’s office, from the padded table to the glass-fronted cabinets on the walls. The instruments inside the cabinets looked more like scalpels than stethoscopes, and there was a line of chairs along one wall, as if people often came to watch. Ryouma turned his attention quickly to the smiling blond man coming to greet them.
Someone had finally beat Kakashi for the coveted title of Most Ridiculous Hair In Konoha.
Ryouma was prepared to concede that some ponytails could be manly; he’d seen a few samurai top-knots that looked downright dashing. This one was not. It was bright blond, nearly waist-length, and glossy as a girl’s, with a carefully arranged shock of bangs over the hitai’ate and one long tendril in front of each ear. His face was masculine enough, with strong-cut features and a well-defined jaw, and his long black interrogator’s coat was no laughing matter, but--
How on earth did he deal with that hair on missions?
Arakaki was performing introductions. Ryouma jerked his rebellious attention back just in time to bow politely at his own name and to learn Yamanaka Inoichi’s. This was the man Kakashi had recommended, then. He’s funny, and he doesn’t hurt.
Inoichi’s handshake was warm and dry, surprisingly strong. “Welcome home. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to look at your sex life.”
“So long as you’re sticking to the last six months, there’s nothin’ to see.” Ryouma reconsidered that. “You probably want to skip this morning an’ last night.”
“I could have lived without knowing that,” Arakaki said dryly.
Inoichi smothered his laugh in a polite cough, but his light eyes danced. “Have you eaten yet, Ryouma?”
“Had lunch just now. That a problem? I didn’t have much.”
“Nope,” Inoichi said cheerfully. “I’ve got a bucket.” He slapped the padded table. “Jump on up.”
Ryouma closed his eyes briefly, took one deep breath, and then swung himself up onto the slick plastic surface. He was a little too long for it; his feet dangled uncomfortably over the edge. “Don’t often see anyone as tall as you,” Inoichi observed, prodding gently at Ryouma’s head. Untying his newly reissued hitai’ate, he realized. The curved metal plate on its dark blue cloth dropped onto his stomach, and Inoichi’s fingertips settled in his hair, just over his temples. He was dimly aware of Arakaki taking a seat at the edge of the room, of a few murmured words between the Director and the interrogator, of another black-coated man slipping in to take notes. Then Inoichi’s fingers flattened against his scalp, and the world
When Kakashi walked out of the Hokage’s office, Shiroya glanced up with a look that suggested he severely regretted not listening at the door. Though presumably the guards would have prevented him. They were older and service-hardened, dressed in anonymous black, every one of them an ex-ANBU.
Perhaps that would be a job for Kakashi, when the village realized that giving him children was pointless exercise.
you think that I am not fit to be the Hokage
He drew a subtle breath, fighting to keep his face blank, and walked towards the hallway. Shiroya interrupted him.
“I have to know,” the chuunin said. “Who’s Akio?”
Kakashi paused and gave him a sidelong look.
“Because the only Akio I can think of with any political swing in Iwa is Councillor Akio, and I don’t know when he would have had the chance to vote—”
One of the guards gave a rumbling cough, but Shiroya’s curiosity was made of sterner stuff.
“What did you do to him?”
The memory was clean and clear, easy to pull up. A palmful of screaming chakra in a half-grown hand, and a falling teenager with most of his face burned away. “Killed his son,” Kakashi said quietly.
Shiroya’s mouth opened, closed, opened again. “Oh,” he managed, after a moment. “That’s a good reason to want you dead.”
Kakashi’s smile was mirthless. “One of many.” He threw a short salute at the chuunin, changing the gesture halfway through from a shoulder tap to two fingers flicking from his temple, then shoved his hands in his pockets and left before Shiroya found more questions.
The sun was autumn-low but bright outside, casting stretches of dark shadow between Konoha’s tall buildings. The white stone gleamed. Kakashi stepped into the first alley-way he found, leaned himself against the wall, and breathed out rage. Nothing the Hokage had said was wrong. Konoha couldn’t afford a war, and the Sandaime couldn’t lead them into one for the sake of one man. Or even a hundred.
One-hundred and two.
With Ryouma alive, his list was down one life. What was the Sandaime’s list like?
Kakashi thumped his head backwards against stone. The Sandaime probably didn’t know the number, probably didn’t want to know. Most sane ninja didn’t keep count of their dead. The Sandaime just stayed alive while men and women and children died for him. While ANBU agents fought secret wars and rotted in secret graves, if they even had graves at all. While the Yondaime had died, sacrificing his life and his child for his village, asking no one else to do the same.
This was how missing-nin began.
He pressed a hand over his eyes, feeling the sting of Obito’s sharingan under steel and cloth, and tried to regain perspective. Tried not to think of the scars he’d taken for Konoha for sixteen years—
Tried not to think of growing up alone without a father who had died for honour, while Kakashi had none.
“Enough,” he said softly.
The sun was still warm when he walked back out into the street, and headed for ANBU’s HQ. The Black Ops building wasn’t white; it had been built in red brick, standing squat and ugly against the rest of the village, only half a street away from the hospital.
His home for six years, and now he had to sign in at the desk.
“Hatake-san,” said the redheaded chuunin, startled. “You’re—um—hello. What can I do for you?”
“Tousaki Ryouma should be here,” he said, attempting a normal tone of voice.
The look she gave him was wide-eyed and alarmed. “Hatake-san,” she said carefully. “Tousaki Ryouma went missing six months ago. He was declared dead last week.”
It’s a beautiful day for a nervous breakdown.
“No,” said Kakashi, equally careful. “He came home yesterday.”
The chuunin’s chakra flickered, as if she was getting ready to fend off an attack. He deducted her a mental point for being so obvious about it.
“Hatake-san, I’m really sorry but I think you must be mistaken—”
“Check,” said Kakashi.
“Check,” said Kakashi. “You have thirty seconds, then I’m walking in and you’ll have to arrest me.”
Another flicker of chakra, this time under the desk. He suspected she’d just activated a seal. A suspicion confirmed a moment later when Shida Akamaru translocated in front of Kakashi, holding half a sandwich.
The chuunin made a strangled sound. “Shida-san! It was—you weren’t—that was supposed to summon Arakaki-san.”
In the slanted bars of sunlight cast through the window, Torture and Interrogation’s Head of Operations looked as nightmarish as he always did. Short and thickly muscled, mostly bald, with narrow eyes and a twisted playground of shiny plastic scars stretching down the right side of his face, from hairline to collarbones, yanking his mouth into a permanent smirk. He smelled of violence and chicken salad.
“Arakaki’s busy,” he said shortly. “What do you want, girl?”
The chuunin swallowed. “Hatake-san said he’s here to see Tousaki Ryouma, but—”
“Fine,” Shida said. “First sub-basement, second door on the left.” He translocated away with a crack of smoke.
The chuunin gave Kakashi a white-faced look. “Ryouma’s alive?”
Ryouma had always liked to gossip with the desk chuunin.
Kakashi struggled to gentle his voice. “Yes,” he said, and repeated: “He came home yesterday.”
To his horror, the chuunin’s eyes welled up and spilled over. “He’s okay?”
“He wasn’t hurt,” Kakashi said. “Well, he was, but he’s healed. He’s thin, but—”
He was completely unprepared when she came right over the top of the desk and crashed into him, flinging her arms around his neck. He froze. She hugged him crushingly tight, pressing her face into his shoulder, and broke down in silent tears.
He stayed absolutely still.
When she showed no signs of letting go, he risked patting her on the shoulder. “I don’t know your name,” he admitted, with a faint cut of guilt. She’d worked the desk for years.
She pulled back, wiping her eyes. “It’s Miyoshi Reiko,” she said, with a watery smile. This close her face was round and pretty, if somewhat splotchy. “Ryouma used to give me advice about my mother-in-law.”
“He would,” Kakashi said reflexively.
She laughed and, thankfully, let him go. “Can you wait a moment?” she asked. “I’m only covering the desk for Machi’s lunchbreak, and then I could go down with you.” The uncertain lilt in her voice made it a question.
In all likelihood, Ryouma wouldn’t be finished for hours. Kakashi shrugged an awkward shoulder and leaned against the reception desk. Reiko’s hands twitched as if she’d very much like to hug him again, but she restrained herself and went back behind the desk, hurriedly tidying paperwork.
When Machi returned, there were more tears, and Kakashi narrowly avoided being fallen upon a second time.
“I’m not taking an entire entourage,” he told them both, and jerked his head at Reiko. “C’mon, if you’re coming. Bring a book.”
Slightly puzzled-looking, she grabbed a stack of glossy magazines tucked in behind the desk and followed at his side, keeping eager step the entire way down to the sub-basement. It was as beige as Kakashi remembered, wallpapered in a faintly nauseated taupe. It stank of cigarettes and misery in a way that made his throat tighten, trapped and suddenly airless.
“Are you okay, Hatake-san?” Reiko asked.
Kakashi cleared his throat. “Fine.”
The solid-jawed T&I woman smoking in the little office recognized Reiko on sight, and gave her a wry look. “Wondered when you’d be by,” she said. Her eyes ticked to Kakashi. “Didn’t expect you.” She hooked a thumb towards the door framed by wilted plants. “He’s in there. Arakaki and a couple others are observing, so keep it quiet.”
Kakashi’s jaw tightened. He led the way, followed by Reiko, and stopped so suddenly in the doorway that she walked into him.
Ryouma’s back was arching off the padded table. Yamanaka Inoichi was leaning over his head, fingers pressed into Ryouma’s wild hair, eyes closed in concentration. Arakaki was seated calmly in the corner, a clipboard resting on his lap. Standing beside him was the tall, scarred interrogator who’d dragged Kakashi and Ginta out of the wrecked ruins of Ryouma’s old base, almost six months ago. Both of them glanced up.
Reiko leaned around Kakashi’s shoulder and caught her breath.
Ryouma’s jaw was clenched, his head tipped back. His hands were boneless-loose, fingers curled lax, but tendons stood out in his stretched throat. Sweat rashed his skin. Behind closed lids, his eyes moved rapidly. He smelled like stress and salted fear.
Inoichi was speaking in a flat, monotone murmur: “—a white room. He sleeps, stares at the ceiling for hours; they stretch him out on the bed. Feed him rice porridge, sit him down—catch him. He paces for hours. There are domed roofs, sandstone, adobe houses: a view of the city through arched windows—”
A memory in reverse, or just too fractured to tell the difference.
I have no doubt he will prove himself loyal
Arakaki’s eyes caught Kakashi. “Get out, Hatake. Reiko, wait outside if you must.”
“I’m sorry, Director,” Reiko said quickly, taking one last look at Ryouma before she left.
For a moment frozen between heartbeats, Kakashi struggled with the urge to murder them all. Then he slid his gaze away, ducked his head, and turned back into the hallway. The door clicked closed behind him, trapping the sound of Inoichi’s voice and Ryouma’s steady, absent breathing. Reiko was standing against the opposite wall, eyes huge in her pale face, hugging her magazines to her chest.
Kakashi went a little ways down the hallway, slid down the wall, and put his head in his hands.
Backwards, like a film on rewind, color and sound unspooling in disjointed snatches, frame-by-frame, slowing, then speeding up again…
The world went red.
The masked man’s hands moved toward his face.
Ryouma landed panting on the icy ledge above the river. He yanked his chakra through a kawarimi in midair. The long-haired woman threw an arm out, and senbon shot from her fingertips. A man toppled screaming into the churning water, left knee and half his ribcage already eaten black with rot. Ryouma lunged, struck at knee and chest, shoved chakra in. The man was a taijutsu user, overconfident, too close; he dodged one strike but tried to block the second.
“The ANBU Ram. Tousaki Ryouma of Konoha. What a delight.”
A bat overhead, wings blotting the sun.
Three dark figures on the path ahead, between cliff and sky.
A cold day, wind from the north, sun on the mountains, the easy burn of muscles working as they were meant to, snow melting on his skin…
And a blank white ceiling, blond hair in the edge of his vision, hands holding his head, his head splitting open, his gut turning itself inside out.
Ryouma turned on his side and threw up over the edge of the table. It went on long past the point of lunch and breakfast, until he was retching dry with Inoichi’s hands still holding his head steady. There was a bucket after all, he noticed, dimly. Perfectly placed. Inoichi had done this before.
There were more observers, too, vaguely sketched through the bright spots dancing in his vision. A balding, scar-faced man built like a bulldog whose mother had engaged in a dangerous fling with a brick outhouse; a black-haired young giant even bigger than Ryouma, taking notes with a disturbing intensity; a middle-aged, bland-looking fellow in a grey Intel uniform, leaning against the wall and chatting in a low voice with Arakaki.
Ryouma choked on a rasping breath. Rolled back from the bucket and let his head rest, very gently, against the padded plastic of the table. It didn’t make a difference to the explosion tags going off within his skull. His mouth was foul with slime, his skin slick with sweat, clothes sealed to his body.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered. No other words seemed adequate.
Inoichi chuckled. “Actually, my parents were married, but I understand the sentiment.” His deep voice was stripped raw and painful, but his hands were still gentle as he draped a cool wet cloth over Ryouma’s forehead. It didn’t exactly help, but Ryouma appreciated the thought.
The painkillers and the bottle of water that followed--and the steady, strong arm helping him sit up enough to drink--were far better. “It’s been about six hours,” Inoichi remarked. “You did well.”
Ryouma rinsed his mouth out, spat into the bucket, and swallowed the pills and half of the water. “I’d consider waking up sane doin’ well, yeah. Shit. That was bad enough the first time. Did you get anything useful?”
“Hell if I know,” Inoichi said, opening his own water bottle and taking a long drink. “I was too busy reading the memories to make much sense of ‘em. Morino-kun?”
The black-haired young man flipped through his notepad. For the first time Ryouna noticed the long purple scars angling down his gaunt, angular face; they looked almost minor compared to the twisted, sneering bulldog monstrosity seated beside him. “The genjutsu itself was more fragmented than I expected,” Morino reported. “I think Arakaki-san is probably right about the masking effect of a second, layering genjutsu. But some of the memories from Kumo and Suna could be helpful, once they’re pieced together.”
“We’ve never gotten an agent that far into Kumogakure no Sato before,” the bland man next to Arakaki said quietly. “If we can cobble together a rough idea of where the village actually is, all of this will have been worth it.”
“Boy didn’t actually know whether he was in the village itself or one of their satellite installations,” the bulldog pointed out. He stood, stretched with a hand at the small of his back, and glowered down at Ryouma. “I still say the best way to locate that village is to find a Cloud rat and twist it out of him.”
The bland man raised an eyebrow. “And how successful have you been in that endeavor over the last ten years, Shida?”
“We can continue that discussion elsewhere,” Arakaki cut in sharply. “Morino, I want to see a clean copy of those notes on my desk tomorrow morning--with commentary, if Oita’s analysts can provide it.”
“I’ll keep Shibata up tonight working on it,” the bland man promised. “I want those notes, too.” He smiled, tight, discomfiting. Ryouma’s aching brain finally matched a name to the face: Oita Gennosuke, Director of ANBU Intelligence. That must make the bulldog man Shida Akamaru, Director of Torture and Interrogation.
Great job bringing yourself to the attention of your superiors, bucko.
“I think we’ve finished here, then,” Arakaki said, standing. He nodded gravely to Shida and Oita, included Morino with a brief jerk of his head, and then came over to the table as the other three filed out. “Thank you for your service, Agent Yamanaka.”
“My pleasure,” Inoichi said. “Though I’d prefer it if you’d wait another year or two before you have me do that again.”
Arakaki’s hand dropped down to rest, as if by accident, on Ryouma’s shoulder. Startled, he looked up, but Arakaki’s gaze was still fixed on Inoichi. “I’ll try,” he said. “I don’t have so many agents that I can use them up like this forever. Can you stand, Tousaki?”
“I can try,” Ryouma said.
He was already mostly upright, with the wet cloth still clinging uselessly to his forehead and his hitai’ate still lying on his stomach. He peeled the washcloth off and stuffed the forehead protector in his pocket, took a deep breath, and swung his legs over the edge of the table. The room was spinning. He tried waiting a moment, to see if it would stop, then gave up and slid off the edge of the table anyway. The bucket was still there, if he needed it.
Fortunately his stomach seemed to have settled, even if his balance hadn’t. Arakaki and Inoichi each grabbed a shoulder. The spinning room jerked to a halt, then reversed and picked up speed going the other way. Ryouma shuddered and stood still.
“--heading out anyway,” Inoichi was saying. “I can drop him off. Where’s he staying?”
“I doubt you’ll need to,” Arakaki said, bone-dry. “He’ll likely have someone waiting outside for him. Fool boy...” His hand closed almost gently on Ryouma’s shoulder, then fell away. “Thank you.”
He was gone.
“All righty then,” Inoichi said cheerfully. “Ten steps to the door and then we’ve got a hallway and an office and--”
He stopped, halfway through the doorway, looking down the hall. “Hey, look. Arakaki was right. You brought a fan club!”
Ryouma blinked away the dizziness again.
A little ways down the hall a red-haired woman in chuunin blues had fallen asleep on Kakashi’s shoulder. They were both sitting huddled against the wall, Kakashi with his knees drawn up almost to his chest, the woman curled against him with a couple of forgotten magazines slipping from her hands. They must have been waiting for hours. Kakashi was so tense he was almost vibrating, and his eye was like winter’s heart.
Slowly, without looking away from Ryouma, he reached over to shake the woman awake.
She mumbled something, shook her head, looked up. Leaped to her feet so fast that Ryouma’s scrambled brain refused to convert motion into meaning. She was sobbing on his chest before he even recognized her face.
“Reiko,” he said, and his own throat closed on the name. It was another moment before he could dredge up more words. “Hope Shuuhei got over his colic.”
“You bastard,” she choked, pounding a fist against his vest. “We went to your funeral.”
“Sorry I missed it,” Ryouma said. “Didn’t know I had one. Did you give a speech?”
She hit him again--harder this time--and then just held tight.
Behind him, Inoichi said helpfully, “If you need to buy apology flowers, I can give you a discount rate.”
“Thanks,” Ryouma said, raw-throated. “I think I may need a lot.”
“At least you have the back pay to cover it,” Kakashi said, pushing himself to his feet. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, standing stiff-legged against the wall while Reiko wept, Inochi looked wry, and Ryouma smelled like exhausted, nauseated pain.
He looked terrible. White-faced, sweat-sheened, unsteady on his feet.
Kakashi managed, just about, not to growl at Inoichi. “You were hard on him.”
“Orders,” Inoichi said, shrugging the shoulder not occupied in keeping Ryouma upright. “Six months is a lot of time, and Arakaki wanted in-depth. Ryouma did great, though. Only threw up once.” He grinned, but his eyes were tired. “You look like you want to try choking me again.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Kakashi said.
"No choking. We've both got sore throats already," Ryouma said hoarsely. He rubbed Reiko’s back, pressed a kiss to the crown of her head, then gently extracted himself and staggered over to Kakashi, who caught and steadied him. Ryouma leaned heavily. "Can we just go back now? I need to brush my teeth."
Behind Ryouma’s back, Inoichi gave a quiet whistle. Reiko scrubbed her face and actually looked pleased, if a little bereft.
Kakashi put his mouth next to Ryouma’s ear, and murmured: “Tell her when you’re going to see her again, you jerk. She’s waited five hours.” And six months before that.
Ryouma winced, a lash of guilt flicking through his scent. “Sorry, Reiko. I’ll stop by tomorrow. Will you and Sayuri both be on duty?"
“It’s my day off,” she said, voice catching a little. She took a steadying breath, smiling. “But I can come in. I’ll bring Shuuhei. He’s walking now.”
Ryouma smiled against Kakashi’s jaw. “Let’s meet for lunch, then. My treat.”
“Deal,” said Reiko. “You’d better show up.”
Inoichi laughed and threw an arm around her shoulder. “I’d listen to the woman. She sounds liable to get tetchy if you don’t.” He was leaning his weight now, in a subtle way, resting against Reiko’s trained strength. ANBU chuunin were some of the strongest in the village, most of them family people who needed to stay near home. “Reckon you can help me home, Reiko? I may collapse at any moment.”
She gave him an extremely dry look. “I’m married.”
“Hope it lasts,” he said, with the barest edge of something unhappy twisting through his scent and smile. Then he brightened. “You can meet my daughter. She’s adorable.”
Reiko snorted and led him out, stooping to gather her magazines on the way. She threw back one last look at Ryouma. Her eyes were still too bright, but her smile had firmed into something real and relieved. “I’m glad you’re safe,” she said.
Then they were around the corner and gone.
Kakashi let out a breath and turned his face briefly against the side of Ryouma’s head. Ryouma flinched ever so slightly, as if his head ached; the scent of sour stomach acid clung to him.
“I would have warned you if I known,” Kakashi said, furious and helpless and trying not to let it show. “I didn’t think it would be that bad. Can you walk?”
“If you want,” Ryouma quoted dazedly, “I can fly.”
Kakaashi’s grip tightened a little. “Movie quote,” Ryouma said quickly, before Kakashi could ask any awkward questions about the strength of his grasp on sanity.
“I don’t think I know that one,” Kakashi said.
“We’ll watch it,” Ryouma promised. “When I can see straight again.” He took a cautious step. Kakashi matched him, shortening his stride, bracing Ryouma with an arm snug around his ribcage. They were both wearing flak vests; it wasn’t very comfortable. And Ryouma smelled terrible even to himself.
But they were moving away from that sterile room, back into the square-jawed smoker’s office, out to the main corridor again. A passing young man with an armload of files glanced warily at them and then edged to the far side of the hall. Ryouma grinned hazily. “Y’know, if this is what a hangover feels like, I got more’n a handful of old teammates I owe apologies to.”
Kakashi snorted. “At least you earn a hangover with a good time first, instead of just getting your brains re-arranged. You still feeling sick?”
“More dizzy. The world’s mostly stopped movin’ like a carousel, though.” Even if he was still listing a little as he walked. He frowned and tried to straighten. “You said you’d done this before? Did you end up feelin’ like your brain just went backwards through a cheese-grater, too?”
They reached the elevator, which was just opening. A grizzled older man with a handful of mission reports paused to hold it for them; Ryouma nodded his thanks, and fireworks went off inside his skull again. He reeled inside the elevator car, gasping. Kakashi gripped him tight, held him steady. At last the fireworks died down a little, and Ryouma could tip his head against the brushed steel wall and breathe.
“It was something like that,” Kakashi said, quietly, very close. Ryouma turned his head a fraction, blindly, and hair brushed his lips. “But I was only in there an hour or two. Don’t nod.”
Ryouma stopped himself just in time. “That’s, what, a month? Two? What happened?”
He really shouldn’t have brought it up.
Kakashi gentled his fingers through black, sweat-spiked hair, cradling the back of Ryouma’s head. “Spent a few weeks in Iwa a couple years ago,” he said carefully, feeling his way around the classified edges. “About this time of year, actually. Inoichi cleared me when I got back.”
Two years ago almost exactly, a little after his nineteenth birthday. Inoichi had been newly thirty, still married, still stupidly proud of his blond little daughter. His jutsu hadn’t been quite so quick and polished back then, but Kakashi had been too tired to care.
Ryouma opened his eyes. “Captive?”
“Sure wasn’t a vacation,” Kakashi said dryly. The lift shuddered to a halt and Ryouma’s face greyed as the wall jarred his head. Kakashi re-steadied him, wrapping one of Ryouma’s arms over his shoulders. “C’mon, ask questions when you’re not falling over.”
He muscled Ryouma out of the elevator by main force, getting him down the short hallway, past the lobby with the chuunin desk — Machi bolted to her feet, but Reiko must have had a word with her because she stayed on her side — and outside, into fresh air. It was evening, cool and crisp, with the sun long down and the moon half up. Ryouma’s breath clouded the air and rasped in his throat, as if he was having a hard time getting enough air to keep his nausea down.
"Askin' questions is keepin' me on my feet,” he got out. “Give me another topic if you don't like that one. How’d you get away?"
For a claustrophobic moment, Kakashi remembered broad hands clenched around his throat, pressed over his mouth and nose. The stone at his back. Takajin’s mouth on his skin.
Takajin’s eye melting away beneath Kakashi’s hand and chakra.
It had only been a few weeks.
He licked his teeth. “Diplomats.”
Unsteadily, Ryouma managed to navigate his way down the steps from ANBU’s front door. "I'm becomin' real fond of diplomats,” he said, in a slightly breezy way that made Kakashi think he really wasn’t all there. “Maybe I should do that next. Is that what you were talking about, when you said I wasn't the only one to have been tortured?"
Or perhaps he was.
“Didn’t think you remembered that,” Kakashi muttered. It was that damn conversation at the Stone all over again.
We follow the rules, Ryouma. No exceptions, no excuses. And if we fall short then we make up the debt. You're not the only one to have been tortured, you know.
He’d been such an idiot.
Ryouma straightened up, tipping his head closer to Kakashi. His voice was very soft, rumbling deep. "I have a good memory. And a lot of time to think over where I went wrong."
Kakashi flinched slightly. “You weren’t wrong.”
Quiet dogged their foreshortened steps for a moment, as Ryouma kept his head ducked down and away from bright streetlights, and Kakashi kept them going in a straight line for home. Then Ryouma found his voice again: “Maybe we both were.”
“‘I’m a hell of a good ninja,’” Kakashi quoted. “‘And I can go on being a good ninja—or you can see me dead ‘cause your rules say so, screw the waste.’” He took a breath. “‘I can’t see how my death’ll serve Konoha more than my hands and muscles and jutsu will, but you’re the genius. Call it.’” He looked at Ryouma. “You weren’t wrong.”
Okay, so Kakashi’s memory was better.
Ryouma stared down at his scuffing sandals and dusty toes, and tried to make his pounding head actually produce thoughts. Shouldn’t Inoichi’s painkillers have kicked in by now? Maybe they already had, and this was as good as it was going to get.
“I still think that’s true,” he said, carefully. “And I’m glad you called it the way you did. But I was wrong goin’ into that argument. You were hurting, and you told me what you couldn’t tell the Stone. I threw it back in your teeth. And then I ran, ‘cause I couldn’t handle not being who you thought I was. Who you wanted me to be. And I was wrong as hell that whole way through.”
He could hear Kakashi swallow.
Streetlights and headache be damned. He looked up, just as Kakashi tipped his face against the side of Ryouma’s neck. From this angle, with a stiff brush of wild grey hair between them, it was impossible to read his eye at all. But the ache in Kakashi’s voice was clear enough. “I just wanted you to be you.”
Ryouma’s eyes burned. He blinked hard. “I didn’t much like myself, right then. Sure didn’t after.”
He thought of that acid-edged conversation with Ginta, the day he’d come back. The sharp ache in his throat, the bitter taste in his mouth. Soldier pills and self-loathing. I screw up everything I touch.
“Sometimes I still don’t like being me. But I told myself, in Suna, if I ever got back—I’d work on being a man you wanted, and I wanted to be.”
Kakashi wasn’t the only one who’d been hurting.
“I want you,” he said, quick and fierce, before Ryouma could doubt it. “With strings, no running. And I’ll want whatever you want to be, but there is nothing wrong with you.” He pulled back, wrapping his fingers around Ryouma’s jaw. “And I’m about ready to bite the next person who says otherwise, including you.”
Ryouma chuckled hoarsely. “I wouldn’t, just now. I probably taste nasty.”
At some point, Kakashi thought, he was going to tie Ryouma down and gag him just to make it through a conversation without detours.
“I mean it,” he said, and took a breath. Tried to give Ryouma words that make sense. “I wasn’t fair to you at the Stone — I wasn’t fair before the Stone, and I was wrong. I’ve always thought if you were good enough, if you tried hard enough, if you did it right, then you could finish the mission and keep your teammates alive. If you loved the Village enough, you’d never break.”
They had stopped walking, now. Ryouma’s breath plumed in the night air. Light from a late-closing shop cut golden bars across his face, making his eyes dark and his cheekbones cut-glass sharp. His arm was warm around Kakashi’s shoulders.
“But everybody breaks, one way or another,” Kakashi said. “Or else they die before they can.”
Under rockslides, saving friends; swallowed by Death Gods, saving lives; by their own hand, for no damn reason at all.
There was a chakra signature behind them, up high on a roof. A faint flicker that vanished when Kakashi spiked a warning shiver through his own chakra. The tail end of Arakaki’s watch, or just a passing shinobi; he couldn’t tell.
He drew another breath and forced out the thought that had eaten at him since the Hokage’s office. Since Ryouma had vanished, and no one had said anything, and Kakashi’s hold on loyalty had splintered in both hands.
“I think the village is broken.”
And I don’t know what to do.
Ryouma wasn’t quite sure when the conversation had jumped from people breaking to the village itself, but he knew the timbre of Kakashi’s voice well enough by now to know that what he was saying mattered. Quiet, intense, with a husky undertone as though he was shaping these words together for the first time. As though it was the first time he’d even really let himself think them...
There was a bench nearby, solid wooden planks braced against the wall of a kimono shop already closed up for the evening. Ryouma tugged Kakashi toward it. “What do you mean?”
The bench bumped his shins. He blinked hazily down at it; apparently his depth perception was off, too. He could manage a controlled fall well enough, though, even with Kakashi hovering as if he thought Ryouma would slide off the bench and into the street at any moment. Kakashi himself condescended to sit only after Ryouma was securely braced against the rough plaster wall. Then he dropped down on the other side of the bench, resting his arms on his knees and hunching over them a little.
“We fight until we die,” he said. His voice was bleak as the Snow Country tundra. “Or until we break and they kill us, or until they break us and we kill ourselves.” His hands flexed, left clenching around right, covering the shiny burn scar that radiated out from the center of his palm. “I saw the Hokage today,” he added abruptly. “Do you remember Orochimaru?”
“I heard the stories,” Ryouma said slowly. He wasn’t sure what this had to do with anything, either, but Kakashi never rambled. There was a point here somewhere. “He was researching forbidden jutsu—experimenting on people, an’ he didn’t just take volunteers.” Mitarashi Anko never talked about it, but everyone in the village knew she’d been one of the only survivors. The one who’d turned her own sensei in.
“He was pissed about Minato-sensei being chosen as Yondaime, an’ something happened. You’ve got your pick of half a dozen rumors as to what. But he left the village, and Jiraiya-sama went after him and never came back, either. Except for the Yondaime’s funeral.”
“Minato-sensei told me they found people buried in the walls when they broke into his labs. Mostly kids.” Kakashi turned his head, glancing up at Ryouma. His eye was almost black beneath the shadow of his hair. “Sandaime-sama let Orochimaru go. There should have been a kill squad, but he called it off. Couldn’t kill his own student. But my father—”
His voice broke. He drew a deep, chest-rattling breath, dropped his head again, stared at his hands.
“Your father disobeyed his orders to save his teammates,” Ryouma whispered, remembering that fight at the Stone, Kakashi’s voice snarling around the White Fang’s bloody story. “And the village hated him for it. Hunted him until he killed himself to atone for it.”
He made his own choice because he thought he knew better. And he was a lot smarter than you.
Kakashi’s hand slid over his face, another mask, a shield. His voice came muffled through his fingers. “I found him.”
He’d never said that.
Ryouma set his teeth and shoved away from the wall to lean against Kakashi’s side, wrapping an arm around his back and resting his chin on Kakashi’s vest-padded shoulder. Kakashi didn’t pull away. Under the vest his muscles felt rigid as iron, brittle as porcelain, as though he were holding himself together by sheer effort of will.
“You loved him,” Ryouma said, very quietly. “And the village killed him.”
Kakashi pressed his hand over his eyes, visible and covered, but not before the view of the packed dirt between his feet blurred. Ryouma’s arm tightened around his shoulders. He dragged a searing breath, unable to process what it smelled like, and tried to keep himself together. He’d already cried yesterday, and six months ago, both in Ryouma’s arms.
Sakumo didn’t need tears fourteen years too late.
Ryouma’s broad-palmed hand curled around his left arm, over the defunct ANBU tattoo Kakashi couldn’t take off, rubbing from shoulder to elbow. He was tall and warm, wrapped around Kakashi like armour—
And he’d just been tortured.
Kakashi made a sound that might have been a laugh, if it hadn’t wrenched. He pulled his hand away, looking at the man who’d only just come home. “I’m sorry. I know your head’s hurting. This should’ve waited.”
"My head'll hurt whether we talk or not,” Ryouma said, immovable as a wall. “You're hurting, too. I'm not going to ignore that this time."
Strings, instead. Talking, instead. Ryouma had already laid himself bare, and Kakashi had tried yesterday, but he hadn’t said it all. Hadn’t told Ryouma the thing he was really afraid of.
“I won’t be a missing-nin,” he managed, voice splintering in his throat. “I can’t be an ANBU. I don’t want to kill myself. I don’t know what to do.”
Ryouma’s voice was right next to his ear, quiet but firm. “Kiss me.” When Kakashi stared at him, he repeated patiently: “You asked me what you should do. Kiss me. I’m going to need it.”
Shaken enough to trust blind, Kakashi tipped his head up and pressed his masked mouth to Ryouma’s chapped lips. Instantly, Ryouma’s other arm wrapped around him, hands joining between Kakashi’s shoulderblades, and disordered chakra surged into a pure, clean shape, guided by rapid seals.
Kakashi didn’t even have time to say what? before the translocation ripped them both off the bench, through the middle space of nothing, and landed them in the centre of his darkened apartment. Protective seals lashed up, snarling and lethal, but retreated at the startled flare of his chakra. Kakashi staggered, but stayed on his feet.
If it was possible to have a cardiac event in motion, Kakashi managed it. He dropped down next to Ryouma, yanking him onto his back; Ryouma made a faintly dying sound and clutched his head, blood trickling from his nose. But he was still breathing.
“... I don’t have words,” Kakashi said, remembering the way Reiko had hammered her fists against Ryouma’s chest. He was more inclined to kick Ryouma through a wall. “Are you trying to kill us? You don’t have chakra!”
Dazedly, Ryouma levered himself onto one elbow. “I got us here, didn’t I? An’ maybe I left my headache behind...” He shoved himself up with a groan. “Nope, just my balance.” Three lurching stagger-steps carried him to the bed, where he collapsed. “Now tell me what you couldn’t say in the street.”
Still on his knees, Kakashi managed not to have a stroke, either. “I was telling you, you incomprehensible lunatic. I used words.”
"You were talkin' about something so bad your options included going missing-nin or killing yourself. On a public street, five minutes from ANBU HQ,” Ryouma rasped, curling onto his side and wiping his upper lip with the back of his hand. In the nothing light, his eyes were cuts of shadow. “An' I don't think it was just 'cause of your dad. What did you talk about with the Hokage?"
Kakashi dragged both hands over his face, shoulders shaking, and breathed through his fingers. Calmed himself. Then he stripped off his hitai-ate, shed his jounin vest, clambered to his feet and tossed them over a chair back. Kicked his shoes off, letting them scatter where they landed, and switched a lamp on. Fetched a cold, wet washcloth from the bathroom.
When he sat down on the bed, Ryouma winced.
“You,” said Kakashi. “Sit up.”
Sitting up was marginally harder than translocating had been. At least Ryouma’d had a spike of adrenaline driving him then, a splinter-edge of fear—it’s always easier in an emergency. And the headache was back in full force now, threatening to crack his skull open like a watermelon at a midsummer party. He dragged himself up against the head of the bed and blinked hard, trying to resolve Kakashi’s face into something more than a black-and-silver blur. “I’m sitting.”
“Good,” Kakashi said. “Stay that way.” He tugged Ryouma’s sandals off, unzipped his vest and peeled him out of it, then began wiping sweat and blood from Ryouma’s face with the wet cloth. His hands were rough, almost angry, but he never jostled Ryouma’s head.
Ryouma waited. The room stopped spinning eventually, and the tickling seep of blood from his nose ebbed. He was still too hot, after the chill night-time air outside, but without his bulky flak vest he’d cool again in time. And the stabbing pain in his head was beginning to die back to an angry throb, so maybe he actually would survive the night.
A cool palm pressed against his forehead. Ryouma refocused with an effort and Kakashi’s face swam into clarity at last. His brows were pinched together under his heavy fall of bangs, and his mouth was a straight, tight line beneath his mask. “They gave you painkillers?”
“Little white pills,” Ryouma agreed. “Three of ‘em. And nobody even tried to crack my head open with a mace this time, so I’ll probably live. Why did you go see the Hokage?”
Kakashi was silent for a long moment. “To ask him why.” His hand dropped from Ryouma’s forehead at last and closed, half-fisted, in his lap. “And to yell at him. He said I should show you the village again, remind us both why it’s worth anything.”
The bitterness in his voice burned.
Konoha’s hatred, its blind thirst for a scapegoat, had killed his father. And Kakashi had given up his life in the village’s service anyway, spent blood and sweat and soul until he had nothing left to give, until the village had wrung him dry and threw him back. What had he said outside the kimono shop?
We fight until we die. Or until we break and they kill us, or until they break us and we kill ourselves.
I won’t be a missing-nin.
I don’t want to kill myself.
Ryouma fumbled for his hand. Found it, and curled his fingers around the smooth-scarred palm. His hand was bigger than Kakashi’s, and his skin was warmer.
“What was it worth when you started?”
A hundred years ago, he might have had an answer for that.
“I was five, and we were at war,” Kakashi said, looking at the heavy bones of Ryouma’s hand. Calloused knuckles, scars from deflected weapons, long blunt-tipped fingers. Artist’s hands trained to kill with a touch. “I wanted to defend my home.”
Ryouma would have been about seven then, maybe, mourning his dead mother and hating his living grandfather.
Reason I ended up on the streets is 'cause my mom died when I was three years old, and my granddad drank himself to death when I was eight.
But not before the old man had broken Ryouma’s knee, and stood idly by while his own friends had tried to climb inside a seven-year-old’s skin. Ryouma hadn’t been a genin. He hadn’t even been in the academy. He’d been untrained, alone, afraid. Undefended.
At least Kakashi’s family had died for him, not just around him.
He swallowed past the ache in his throat and swung his feet off the floor, stretching out next to Ryouma. Ryouma’s grip tightened; Kakashi pulled their joined hands up, resting his masked mouth against the back of Ryouma’s scarred knuckles. Dark eyes watched him intently.
At least I got a lot of thinking done, these last six months.
And gotten good at being patient, apparently. Kakashi reached for words.
“When I was about four, I started asking my father why it was just us. He used to sit in on council meetings a lot, and he’d take me along because I’d terrorized every babysitter in the neighbourhood. There’d be all these clan heads with their partners, talking about their families. Sometimes the Sandaime would bring his son along, too — we were about the same age. I thought he was an idiot.” Kakashi’s lips twitched. “But it got me obsessed for a while. Why didn’t I have a mother? Why wasn’t our clan full of people? We had a bloodline limit. There should have been more of us.”
Ryouma’s eyebrows flicked up. He’d never seen the Hatake white chakra trick, Kakashi realized.
“It’s not much of one, we’re not exactly a pedigree. Just a piece of free-form chakra. The sense of smell comes in more handy, and that’s because my great-grandmother had a fling with an Inuzuka.”
Ryouma’s voice was a low murmur. “Brave lady. That’s the teeth, too?”
“Yeah, teething was hell. Not that I remember. My father—” he hesitated, then tried: “Dad said I used to chew on the furniture.” The shape of the word was awkward in his mouth, like a foreign language.
Laughter rumbled in Ryouma’s chest, low and delighted. “Really? Hah. So I’m just furniture, then.” There was nothing insulted-sounding in his voice, just interest when he asked: “What were you like as a kid?”
But that wasn’t the answer Ryouma wanted, and it wasn’t the entire truth. There had been a life before the academy had dragged him through a six month parade of scarred teachers, hard lessons, and a wolf-pack of children, before spitting him into Minato’s nineteen-year-old care and the teeth of the war.
“Eager to please,” Kakashi said, breath breaking warm against Ryouma’s fingers. “And kind of a brat. I liked being good at things; I always wanted to learn more. That was... difficult for my father sometimes, I think. He never had enough time to teach me.” An old thought surfaced. “I think I reminded him of my mother. I don’t know, he never really talked about her.”
Ryouma sighed softly and dropped his free arm around Kakashi, curling a little closer. “Hope his reasons were better’n my granddad’s. Too painful? You said she died when you were born. What did he tell you when you asked?"
“That she was a strong ninja, and I should work to make her proud. And that I should be proud of her for doing her duty.” His smile was very faint. “And to stop asking questions and do my katas.”
Ginta’s grandmother had known more. Ginta had known more.
Grandmother said that... she was lovely. She said your mom was very good at the poetry card game, and that they beat the men playing it."
“You said you were three when your mother died,” he said. “Do you remember anything about her?
She was a slut and a whore and she didn’t even know my dad’s name, and she left me behind...
Maybe some of that was true. Maybe all of it. But that was Granddad speaking, not Ryouma’s own memories. And if Kakashi could push past the bloody memory of his father’s corpse on the living room floor to remember being teased about teething on the furniture, Ryouma ought to be able to do the same.
“She had dark hair. Long, silky, not coarse like mine. Her hands were always warm. An’ the whole world went bright when she laughed...”
How had he forgotten that?
“I looked her up, once, in the Shinobi Registry. Had the old lady working there look her up, at any rate. Years ago, I must’ve been sixteen or so... They had a picture. I don’t know if it was right or not; I don’t remember her face. She was beautiful, though. Looked like the kind of girl who’d kiss you and then laugh when you asked for more.” The kind of woman who’d probably had hungry men swarming her everywhere she turned. Was she to blame if she’d accepted them? He’d never been any better.
“She was a chuunin, Fire chakra, good with kunai. Better at taijutsu than ninjutsu, though. I must have the Water chakra and the ninjutsu from my dad.”
“And your height, probably.” Kakashi looked up, eye narrowing thoughtfully as he studied Ryouma’s face. Beneath the mask his mouth quirked a smile. “I think your eyes are probably your mom’s. Too pretty to be your dad’s.”
Ryouma batted his lashes. Kakashi snorted.
“I was tall even as a kid,” he said, remembering. “Hit six feet by the time I was fifteen. I used to wonder, whenever I ran into a tall man around the right age—Was it you? Kids have a lot of stupid dreams.” He sighed, and wriggled down a little lower on the pillows, enough to tuck his chin against Kakashi’s shoulder. “When I was really small I used to imagine he had a family, and they’d come find me. Couple of years later I still hoped they would, so I could tell ‘em to piss off.”
Kakashi gave a little bark of surprised laughter. “Good for you.” He tugged his hand free and smoothed it lightly over Ryouma’s ruffled hair, as comfortable and familiar as if he were petting one of his dogs. His fingers never jostled Ryouma’s head. "I met your sensei, once. What about your genin team? I don't think you've ever mentioned them."
Ryouma grimaced. “We weren’t exactly one of the shining examples of genin team success stories. Kenichi died early—fire jutsu to the face, before we ever even hit the front lines. He was twelve. Shouri made it to chuunin with me and got pregnant when she was fourteen. It got her out of the war. I haven’t spoken to her in years.”
Kakashi let out a soft, slow breath. “Pregnant by choice?”
“She was screwing jounin when she was thirteen.” Ryouma closed his eyes and remembered those bitter fights in the crowded bunker, Shouri’s thin, dirt-smudged face and desperate-defiant eyes, his own words sharpened to cut: See if I care the hell what you do... “One of the adult kunoichi in our unit got pulled back to Konoha when the commanders heard she was pregnant. I think Shouri saw it as her only way out. Things were pretty bad, then.”
She’d asked him to help her, and he’d refused.
“Hitomi-sensei had been re-assigned after we made chuunin. They stuck her back with me a couple months later, but by then Shouri’d already got what she wanted. And the village needed babies.”
Maybe Kakashi was right. This village was broken. The whole world was. Who among them had ever had a chance?
Graduated at any age, it seemed like no one was ready.
Kakashi eased himself onto his back, careful not to let Ryouma’s head jar. Ryouma shifted down further, resting his cheek on the flat of Kakashi’s chest, one arm slung over Kakashi’s ribs. His skin felt overly warm, hair still sweat-slick. Given the day he’d had, it wasn’t surprising if he’d managed to pick up a low-grade fever. Kakashi cupped his palm around Ryouma’s forehead and whispered chakra through the skin, calling on water instead of lightning for once. Cooling things down.
Ryouma sighed softly.
“You weren’t friends with your genin team,” Kakashi said, low-voiced.
“No,” said Ryouma, with an edge to his voice that made Kakashi suspect he was pulling a face. "They were two years younger, and I was a gutter-born brat off the street who never should've been let into the Academy at all." That sounded like a direct quote. Kakashi ground his back teeth, listening as Ryouma continued: "Shouri built herself up a little adolescent crush, once, but when I wouldn't get her pregnant she lost that pretty quick. I had a couple of friends from Canal Street who followed me into the Academy, but they died before the war ended." His fingers tapped a slow, thoughtful rhythm on Kakashi’s ribcage, resting directly above the three parallel scars he’d once found so fascinating. "If you count that time we met with Hitomi and Minato-sensei, you're my oldest living friend."
They both knew Kakashi had no living friends. He hadn’t spoken to Ginta in six months.
“I think,” Kakashi said carefully, “that’s the most depressing thing either one of us has said today.”
Ryouma’s startled laugh was like gravel and bass. “Oh, c’mon. You were talking about going missing-nin.”
“I stand by my point,” Kakashi said. “I’m a lousy friend. And I think you knocked me out the first time we met.”
"I'm pretty sure you knocked yourself out. Chakra exhaustion. Though I think I did sit on you." Ryouma flattened his hand against Kakashi’s ribcage, a smile bleeding warm through his voice. "We were both brats, weren't we?"
“It’s amazing they ever let us live,” Kakashi agreed, mouth curving despite himself. “You never said what happened to Hitomi-sensei.”
"She's still around,” Ryouma said. “Hasn't taken another genin team, so far as I know—we probably put her off kids for life. I met her for lunch the day after I joined ANBU. She told me congrats and that I still didn't have a chance."
At ANBU—or at her? Ryouma’s crush on his sensei had been a mile wide and obvious even to Kakashi, who’d been half blind, cripplingly exhausted, and completely uninterested. The only time Ryouma had taken his eyes off Hitomi was the brief moment when Minato had complimented his jutsu, and then he’d glowed.
"We should go see her, sometime,” Ryouma said, quiet and thoughtful.
Kakashi’s hand stuttered. “We?”
Ryouma’s head tipped back, very carefully, until he could meet Kakashi’s eye. “Not if you don’t want to. But she probably wouldn’t believe me otherwise, if I told her I actually made good.” He hesitated, words coming more uncertainly. “You’d probably like her, anyway. You could bond over insulting me.”
“Pretty sure I said I’d bite anyone who insulted you,” Kakashi murmured. “Former teachers probably get a free pass, though.” He caught his tongue between sharp teeth, trying to navigate complicated ground. Ryouma said made good like he’d caught a prize, but Kakashi remembered Hitomi — remembered insulting Hitomi — and she’d been everything a pure-blooded Hyuuga was supposed to be. Proud, reserved, stern. Not the kind of woman who’d look kindly on stolen-gifted bloodlines, or a male partner for her only worthwhile student.
“I don’t think she’d want to meet me,” he said at last.
Ryouma blinked. “She’s met you before. Told me afterwards she wouldn’t be surprised to hear stories about you, in a few years, if you didn’t get yourself killed first.”
Kakashi’s grey lashes shivered in his own surprised blink. “Smart woman,” he commented. “But stories are different when they’re sitting at your dinner table, within range of your...” He hesitated, chewing over his words. “You.”
“You mean,” Ryouma said slowly, “that a bastard street-rat who can’t even read and whose only claim to fame is that his signature jutsu makes strong men vomit is a better catch than Sharingan no Kakashi, last of the Hatake clan, the Yondaime’s student, who survived six years in ANBU and has now retired to begin a distinguished new career as the village’s top jounin? I guess I do have my looks going for me...”
That won him a flat stare. “Well, when you put it like that,” Kakashi murmured at last. Then he recaptured Ryouma’s hand, hooked his mask down, and bit him warningly on the knuckles, just hard enough to nick the skin. “Stop insulting yourself.”
“I was complimenting you!” Ryouma protested. “Hell, you could probably sign up with one of those match-making services and in half an hour you’d have forty hopeful mothers-in-law beating down your door.”
Kakashi shuddered. Ryouma grinned lopsidedly. “Okay, so the liking men thing might be kind of a stumbling block for the mothers-in-law. Honest, though, Hitomi’d probably just be pleased to know there’s someone who could put up with me for more than twenty minutes at a time. Ouch! That wasn’t an insult!”
“Full jounin,” Kakashi said, releasing Ryouma’s hand. “Jutsu inventor, survivor of two separate stints in enemy hands, battlefield experience, team leader, an ANBU career where you ran S-ranked missions with veterans and held your own.” He paused, brows crinkling. “And you’ve saved my life twice.”
“Only twice?” Ryouma tried and utterly failed to raise a skeptical eyebrow, as an absurd grin waged and won a war with the rest of his face. If his head weren’t still throbbing warningly at every movement this might have been a good time to try kissing Kakashi senseless. As it was, he settled for a brief brush of the lips along the edge of Kakashi’s jaw before he settled down again, head pillowed just below Kakashi’s shoulder, ridiculous grin still tugging at his mouth. “That makes us even, doesn’t it? I’ll have to work harder. Just you wait ‘til I’m back in shape. Show you why I was captain of Team Badass...”
The yawn took them both by surprise. Kakashi’s laugh rumbled deep in his chest, tingling through Ryouma’s bones. He cradled his hand around the back of Ryouma’s neck, and the cooling chakra sank in again, soothing as cold water on fevered skin. “You should eat before you pass out.”
“Tomorrow,” Ryouma said. His stomach still wasn’t sure it had settled. Brushing his teeth was probably a better idea, but the thought of sitting up again was too much to take. He could feel himself beginning to drift on the rise and fall of Kakashi’s breathing. Still no straight answer, about Kakashi’s talk with the Hokage or about his strained loyalties, but some things didn’t have straight-forward answers, and maybe they’d come as close as they could for one night. Most of the bleakness had drained out of Kakashi’s voice. There would always be shadows in his eye, but those were shadows Ryouma knew; he had his own.
His fingers curled loosely and relaxed again over Kakashi’s chest, an absent sort of petting somehow as soothing as Kakashi’s hand on his neck. There should be scars here, three parallel lines wrapping around the left side of Kakashi’s ribcage, just under his arm. Ryouma had memorized them months ago, though they were too faintly raised to be felt now beneath the thick uniform shirt. He traced the remembered lines anyway. “Tell me a story. Where’d you get these?”
Ryouma’s fingertips tickled. Kakashi twitched, but didn’t move away. Ryouma’s hand flattened across his ribcage.
“Bedtime story?” Kakashi asked wryly.
“I’ve always wanted to try one,” Ryouma said, with a lopsided shrug. There was still half a smile in his voice. “I thought happy thoughts for you, once.”
He had, half a lifetime ago, when Kakashi had been hungover and sick and shaken. Ryuoma had wrapped around him like armour then, too; braced against Kakashi’s back and talked quietly about bare-handed fishing.
“Fair point,” Kakashi said, trying to get past the thought that Ryouma had never had a bedtime story. Even Kakashi had been given stories to fall asleep to, once upon a time. “It’s not a bad story. I was sixteen, ANBU, just getting into being a veteran. The Village was halfway rebuilt after the Fox, settling down a bit. There was time for more... fluffy missions, if you like. Money-missions, anyway. I got sent to Tea Country as an escort for this princess doing a grand tour for her eighteenth birthday.”
Ryouma groaned. "How come I never got those missions? Princess'd be wasted on you. What was she like?"
“Pissy,” Kakashi said, remembering. “I think she expected someone older. And taller. Unlike some, I didn’t get my full height for another year.” Even then he’d never broken six feet; Ryouma still had four inches on him. “Actually, there was another princess later that year, in Snow. Guess it was a theme.”
Ryouma vented an envious sigh that ghosted warm across Kakashi’s neck. “I was eighteen and six-two that year. An' I spent most of it runnin' surveillance in Lightning Country with three other guys. No princesses anywhere."
“Amazing they didn’t put the tall, handsome, cocky killer near the rich girls of selective virtue,” Kakashi observed. “It’s almost like they planned it.”
There was a beat of silence around his collarbones.
“Good point,” Ryouma admitted grudgingly, before he laughed. “No fun for anybody.”
Ninja life in a nutshell, Kakashi thought.
“So, anyway, there’s me and this princess and her usual guards, and this whole entourage of completely useless people following us around from town to town while she has parades and parties thrown in her honour, and all these wealthy woman trying to introduce their sons to her, and it’s basically one big security headache.” He tipped his head back on the pillow, fingers carding through Ryouma’s short hair. “Of course, if we’d known someone was actually planning to assassinate her, I’d have had more back up. Mostly her mother just wanted me around for the image, I think. ‘We’re rich enough to afford ANBU, isn’t he scary looking’.”
"Very scary,” Ryouma said, sounding drowsy but interested. “Even if disappointingly short. So there were assassins?"
“Second week,” Kakashi said. “In Kaidabae. We were staying at Funagi-jo Castle, taking a two-day break from the road, and the Lord was throwing this expensive feast in her honour.” He pulled a face at the ceiling. “Big hallway banquet, fancy guests, hired entertainment — the whole deal. But Milady gets bored, so she says I can be more entertaining, and then I’ve got three hundred people looking at me like they expect me to do ninja magic, or something.”
“Killing the guests is always entertaining,” Ryouma murmured.
“I was tempted,” said Kakashi, quieting his voice a little. “But she was the boss, so I got up and did a few sword-kata, threw some of genin-level jutsu around. Made a couple fire birds, I think. Next thing I know, there’s this giant lizard-thing in the middle of the room trying to eat me, and all I can think is: I didn’t make that.”
“Gold star for you.” He ignored Ryouma’s rough, amused snort. “So the guards bolt for the princess, who thinks this is all part of the show, and I’m mostly taken up with not getting my head bitten off. Meanwhile, there’s a pack of missing-nin breaking out of the crowd, and the Lord is shouting about demons, and this stupid group of civilians decide I need rescuing, so they grab weapons off the walls and come charging in. That’s when I got the scars, knocking two of them out of the way.”
"From the lizard?” Ryouma said, spreading his fingers over Kakashi’s side as if he was trying to measure the spread of scars he couldn’t see. “Or the civilians?"
“Lizard. But there’s a nick under my chin from a naginata.” He rubbed his jawbone with his free hand, remembering teeth jarring together, and the rake of long claws over his ribs, buckling armour. “S’probably a miracle no one died. Well, except for the lizard, and the missing-nin. It took a couple clones — and a spear, actually — but they were mostly chuunin, maybe one jounin, and it wasn’t that hard a clean up. Y’know, once the civilians stopped trying to help.” He made a faintly amused sound. “Princess listened to me a lot better after that.”
Ryouma’s breath rasped on a low laugh. "I'll bet. Rippin' hearts out in public tends to have that effect..."
Kakashi smiled crookedly. “So I hear. Doesn’t make for much of a bedtime story, though. You’re still awake.”
“You were fighting giant monster lizards,” Ryouma protested. “How am I supposed to fall asleep during that?”
“You asked,” Kakashi said, but his voice stayed quiet. He scratched short-cut nails very gently against the nape of Ryouma’s neck, and had to smother a laugh when Ryouma shivered, stretched, and made himself comfortable again, just like any one of Kakashi’s pack. “I could tell you a real story, if you like. I know a couple.”
“I’ll get spoiled,” Ryouma warned. “Ask for a story every night. An’ a glass of water. An’ an extra blankie...”
“Hmm.” Kakashi’s hand stilled on the back of Ryouma’s neck as he considered that. “You’re right. You can sleep out on the landing tomorrow. Naked. That’ll toughen you up.”
“Your neighbors won’t know whether you’re bragging or just a sadistic monster.” Ryouma yawned again. “I’ll have to tell ‘em it’s both. Or I can be good, an’ you can tell me a real story.”
“You’re never good,” Kakashi said, but his hand clasped a little tighter, cool and comforting. He cleared his throat. “A very long time ago, the old man in the moon looked down into a big forest on the land, and saw three friends living together. A monkey, a fox, and a rabbit. He wanted to know which one of them was the kindest, so he changed himself into a beggar and came down from the moon to meet them.”
His voice sounded oddly formal, as if he were quoting the story exactly the way it had been told to him. Ryouma wondered who that long-ago teller had been. Had the White Fang of Konoha come home from missions to tuck his small son into bed and tell him folktales? No wonder Kakashi loved him.
He let his eyes drift close, as Kakashi’s voice rumbled beneath and around him. “The friends were shocked by the poor beggar, who came to them in rags and asked if they had any food. The monkey went to the trees and returned with an armful of fruit. The fox went to the river and came back with a silver fish. But the rabbit couldn't find anything to bring, and he was sad and ashamed.”
“Poor rabbit,” Ryouma mumbled. “Can’t share grass?”
Kakashi laughed very softly, like a tiny rockfall under Ryouma’s ear. “I guess not.” His voice slipped deeper again, back to the memorized formality of the story. “But the rabbit was clever and had an idea. He asked the monkey to gather wood, and the fox to make a fire with it, big and bright enough to make the shadows dance. When it was hot and hungry, the rabbit looked at the beggar and said, ‘I don't have anything to give you, so I will put myself in this fire. When I am cooked, you can eat me.’”
“Stupid rabbit,” Ryouma said. “Fish an’ fruit woulda been enough.” He lost the last words in another yawn. “But he’s a good little guy. Reminds me of somebody I know.”
“The rabbit’s friends didn’t want to lose him,” Kakashi said, ignoring him, “but he was too quick for them. He slipped away from their paws and ran towards the fire—but suddenly the beggar changed himself back again, becoming the old man from the moon. He caught the rabbit and took him in his arms, and said: ‘You are very kind, little rabbit, and the bravest of all. But you should never do anything to harm yourself. Since you are the kindest, I'll take you home to live with me.’
“So the rabbit said goodbye to his friends, and the old man carried him above the forest, high up into the night sky, and gave him to the moon. If you look up on very clear nights, you can still see him there, watching over anyone who is brave enough to run into fire for a stranger.”
Ryouma lay still for a long moment after Kakashi’s voice drifted into silence. “That rabbit has a lot to answer for,” he said at last, very quietly. “But it’d be nice to think he’s up there, lookin’ after you.” He sighed, and turned his face against Kakashi’s side. “Thanks for the story. And for the runnin’ into fire.”
“Oh sure,” Kakashi murmured softly, “get all metaphorical on me.”
Ryouma’s arm tightened briefly around his chest, lean muscle and exhaustion replacing the solid strength Kakashi remembered. Painkillers conspired to knock Ryouma out in another minute; his breathing evened and settled, lapsing into something slow and peaceful as his body became warm dead-weight. Very carefully, Kakashi brushed fingertips over one too-sharp cheekbone. Dark eyelashes flickered, but Ryouma didn’t stir.
“I wasn’t the only one,” Kakashi told him, keeping his voice low. Village is full of suicidal rabbits, and you’re just as bad as me.
He let his head drop back, looking up at the golden lamplight reflected on the ceiling. The corners were full of shadows. He’d been four, maybe five, when Sakumo had told him that story. Still learning what it meant to wear Konoha’s hitai-ate, full of fire to get out and kill bad men. We were at war, I wanted to defend my home. He remembered hard, calloused hands in the dark; white hair that smelled of blood; a strong-jawed, unmasked face with a gentle mouth. Feeling safe and warm and wanted, because his father was home and all was right in the world, and for a brief heartbeat of time between missions and training and tragedy, he’d had the White Fang’s undivided attention without having to earn it.
He hadn’t thought about that in years.
You loved him. And the village killed him.
Sakumo had killed himself. Alone and dry-eyed, kneeling respectfully on the living room tatami floor, in the most painful way possible. He’d been in the war — he’d been compared to the Sannin in his heyday — he’d known how long a belly wound would take to bleed dry, but he’d done it anyway. He’d still been kneeling when Kakashi had come home from a mission, hours later, and smelled the blood.
Rabbit to the fire, but no one had been there to catch him.
Kakashi swallowed hard. The funeral had been a week later; he’d worn his mask and mourning blacks, and Minato had gripped his shoulder hard enough to bruise. Jiraiya had gotten drunk; the Sandaime had said a few words; a half-dozen of Sakumo’s former teammates had shown up to stand in silence. And then there’d been the white-faced, hard-eyed knot of grieving, furious relatives of the ninja who hadn’t survived Sakumo’s mistake, determined to get one last parting shot. Minato had shouted at them, Kakashi remembered dimly.
Kakashi had said, Let them.
“Stupid bastard,” he whispered hoarsely, and didn’t know who he meant.
It hadn’t changed anything afterwards. Sakumo’s memory was still hated; the Hatake clan was still dying. Would die when Kakashi did, because he had no plans to inflict himself on a new generation, no matter what the Sandaime suggested. There’d been no honour in any of it, just a stupid lonely boy who’d grown up learning all the wrong lessons, until another boy had died for him.
I believe the White Fang is a true hero!
He’d already taken his hitai-ate off. Slowly, careful not to jar Ryouma, he lifted his free hand and rubbed it over his eyes, trying to force back the burn of hot salt. His fingers came away wet. Ryouma stirred, murmuring something faintly incoherent, frowning in his sleep. Bad dreams already.
“S’okay,” Kakashi managed, re-settling his right hand on the back of Ryouma’s neck, chidori scar to skin. “Stay asleep.”
For maybe the first time ever, Ryouma actually obeyed him.
What would Sakumo have done if he’d had more than a son to live for? If his wife had survived. She was lovely. Maybe she’d been funny and fierce and uncompromising, a sharpened blade. Maybe she would have stood like a shield between Sakumo and the village who’d turned on him, and said you’re still worth something.
Maybe she would have been there, to take the tanto from his hands.
What was it worth when you started?
His whole family, his whole self. They’d given everything, and he’d given everything, and he’d ended up—
Alive, breathing, next to a man who said things like you make me better and meant them. Ryouma had played insane for six months, convincingly enough that Suna had believed him. The Hokage had believed him. But Konoha had still brought him home.
No, not Konoha. Konoha’s ninja.
Those who break the rules are trash. But those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash.
(a bastard street-rat who can’t even read)
If I'm going to be called trash either way, I'd rather break the rules.
(Ryouma had always been the rule breaker)
Kakashi took a shaky breath, inhaling sleeping storms and old hurts, and thought very briefly of the half-empty bottle of shouchu in the back of his fridge. Of quieting his thoughts and sleeping easily, without dreams. Then he thought of waking up headachey and dry-mouthed, badly rested, and having to explain himself.
Ryouma deserved better.
Kakashi looked down at him, and realized that he’d never really done this before—he’d sat vigil three times by Ryouma in the hospital, once after the mission when Ryouma had almost bled to death in the showers, and twice after the disaster with Tsume and Kuromaru, when Ryouma had screamed himself awake. But every other time they’d been together, Kakashi had fallen asleep first and woken up last. He’d never looked at Ryouma before, without Ryouma looking back.
There were still thin silver scars edging into Ryouma’s hairline, legacy of a smashed porcelain mask, barely visible in this light. His nose was bladed and straight except for the slight dip where it must once have been broken and reset. His jaw was strong and angular, leading down to a slightly narrow chin—another feature from his mother, Kakashi guessed. Dark, thick lashes lay against tanned skin like crescents of coal. Ryouma’s hair was the shortest Kakashi remembered it ever being, but it suited him, rough and soft and still a little wild.
He didn’t look younger in sleep. He just looked like himself, unguarded and very tired.
Something to live for.
“A very long time ago,” Kakashi began quietly, “there was a priest who bought a bewitched iron kettle...”